Where exactly is the basis for Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s greatness? This question sounds rather blasphemous coming from me, a young post-colonial Igbo who fancies himself a historian of some sorts. Is it that he took up arms against his country, no matter how legitimate his cause was? Or that he actively participated in scuttling the first coup which sought to violently cleanse Nigeria of misrule and corruption? Or that he went to the Aburi peace conference with proposals which, depending on implementation, might have split the country? Perhaps his greatness lies in his rebellion against his father’s choice of course of study and career for him. But many people have made a roaring success of following their heart over the years. Among my peers Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie turned her back on medicine and became a great writer who wrote her acclaimed ‘Half of a Yellow Sun.’ Or does Ojukwu’s greatness stem from his adventurism in college? Or because he committed class hara-kiri? Maybe it is because he wooed, bedded and married some of Nigeria’s most glamorous women?
I never met the Ikemba in life. But my interest in how Nigeria stopped turning from 1960-1970 compels me to devour both fiction and non-fiction on the people and events that shaped that period. My parents lived through Biafra, Mum as a nurse in Biafran hospitals. Over the years, as I matured and observed how my Igbo people fared in inter-group relations within Nigeria, I came to understand Ojukwu’s place as the Igbo icon. But was he worthy of his iconic status? Does he, to quote Stanton, a top American civil war era government official’s depiction of Abraham Lincoln after the latter’s assassination, ‘belong to the ages?’
History must not be suppressed by sentiment. Biafra was not conceived as an entity of its own, in spite of Biafrans’ heroic achievements on and off the battlefield. If my recollection of Ojukwu’s interview with ‘The Source’ magazine in 1997 is correct, the Ikemba did not set out to carve out a country. Biafra was a reaction to the genocidal oppression unleashed on the East by Nigeria from 1966-67. Ojukwu was a convinced ‘One Nigeria’ man-his antecedents bespeak of this attribute-but he was too much of an Igbo to let his people become yesterday’s news in a perverse federation. ‘I realized I was an Igbo, a Nigerian, an African and a black man. And I determined to be proud of the four. In that order,’ he told his friend and biographer, Frederick Forsyth. But did he do the East a disservice by not deliberately planning for secession after the massacres of 1966 instead of going to eventually futile peace meetings even as the other side built up their arsenal? Against this line of thought a portrait of Ojukwu the world seems to be seeing since his death emerges: that of a reluctant warrior. Let the records of Aburi in January 1967; the Ad-hoc Conference of September 1966 and Ojukwu’s meetings with the Western Regional leader, Obafemi Awolowo, before the outbreak of hostilities speak for themselves.
Ojukwu was not a saint. Few historical figures are. But what interests me are some of the Ikemba’s decisions and actions that impacted on the people for whom he became an icon. Did he do the Biafran struggle any good by allowing the trial and execution of Banjo, Ifeajuna, Agbam and Alale in September 1967 for an alleged coup? Perhaps he was so insecure about his position that he refused to incorporate leading and competent Biafran military officers and civilians into the war effort and running his regime. Alexander Madiebo, Ojukwu’s army commander, declared in his book ‘The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War’ that ‘Biafra never had a government but merely operated under a leader.’ (Madiebo.p.379). Did his age-old differences with Nnamdi Azikiwe blind Ojukwu to the man’s value to Biafra and thus nearly pushed the Owelle out of the Biafran orbit, though his poem is the basis for the anthem of the LAND OF THE RISING SUN? As the face of Igbo unity, did Ojukwu do well by getting into the fray of the Second Republic from 1979 to 1983? What of the controversial Eze-gburu-gburu title he took and his refusal to work with other acclaimed Igbo elite? Though I must admit that given the sleazy record of some of these elite, Ojukwu might have done the Igbo and Nigeria a favour by keeping his distance. Then was it just for Ojukwu to associate with the Abacha government?
These posers are indicative of the enigma called Ojukwu and will be debated for years. But nobody can erase the historical truth in what he told Forsyth: ‘You cannot, you simply cannot, abandon, betray or sell, a people who have put their trust in you and remain an honourable man.’ For nearly three years Eastern Nigerians, both Igbo and non-Igbo, trusted in Ojukwu and he did not fail them. He showed them what leadership meant when the world was against them. Herein lies his greatness in my opinion: he demonstrated in a leadership-starved society that it was possible to get uncommon feats from common people. By becoming one with their aspirations, fears and hopes, he earned his place in their hearts. He did not get it right at times but he did his best for Biafra and even his enemies acknowledge that.